Local News
August 3, 2016

Syrian refugee resettlement issue divides candidates for governor

 

Photos 1-2, 4-5 by Erin Mansfield; Photo 3 Courtesy of VTDigger

(1) Republican Bruce Lisman (2) Democrat Sue Minter (3) Republican Phil Scott (4) Democrat Peter Galbraith (5) Democrat Matt Dunne

By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org

It did not take long for Syrian refugee resettlement to become a hot-button issue in Vermont’s gubernatorial race. Last November, after the terror attacks in Paris killed 130 people, Republican candidates Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman said that the program should be halted due to security concerns. (Thirty governors across the country voiced similar concerns in the wake of the attacks; Peter Shumlin was one of 15 governors who doubled down on support for Syrian refugees coming to the United States.)

President Barack Obama announced in September that the United States would up its quota of Syrian refugees from 2,000 to 10,000 in fiscal year 2017.

Scott quickly reversed course after coming under heavy criticism from his rivals — Matt Dunne told Seven Days that Scott and Lisman were “playing to our worst fears” — and now supports resettlement. Lisman continues to favor a pause though he hasn’t specified how long such a moratorium would be in place or if it would extend to countries other than Syria.

All three Democratic candidates have voiced unequivocal support for Syrian refugee resettlement.

After the Paris attacks the issue largely retreated from public view in Vermont until Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announced in April that his city was one of several being considered for placement of Syrian refugees. Critics attacked the mayor for the manner in which he made the decision — Louras involved only a handful of stakeholders and did not consult with the Board of Aldermen — and raised questions about Rutland’s ability to accommodate the refugees. A group called Rutland First circulated a petition calling for a non-binding citywide vote on resettlement. While the Board of Aldermen narrowly rejected the ballot initiative, they drafted a letter to the State Department withholding support of the program due to “lack of information and outreach.” In a closed-door executive session last week the Board agreed to further investigate the mayor’s actions.

All of this has taken place against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants entering the United States.

Scott’s and Lisman’s positions on resettlement haven’t changed but both criticized Mayor Louras for not bringing the issue to public attention sooner. Lisman, who wants a moratorium on resettlement, said the mayor “handled it poorly” and should have been more transparent, though he acknowledged that doing so might not have changed minds. “Like a lot of other things that have taken place in the state,” he said, “a very broad open transparent discussion would’ve relieved people’s anxiety.” Instead, Lisman said, it’s turned into an issue of who knew what when.

Scott also criticized how the process has unfolded in Rutland — he described it as “volatile” and “challenging” and said there needs to be more education, more transparency, and more buy-in from the community. But he also said as governor he would not stand in the way of Vermont welcoming Syrian refugees. “We have an obligation as a society to do whatever we can to help,” he said. Scott argued that attracting more people to the state, especially 25- to 45-year-olds, is one of the key challenges the next governor will face and denying entry to refugees from Syria sends the wrong message.

Sue Minter, whose own family took in refugees fleeing Central Asia several years ago, said she fully backed Louras’ decision and had communicated with him on several occasions since his April announcement. “I fully support his decision to embrace and welcome people fleeing war and persecution,” she said. “I will continue to embrace that as governor.”

As for how she would reach out to opponents of Syrian resettlement, Minter said she would share her own story. They got off to a rocky start she said — the family they took in spoke no English and had three children, including a nursing infant. But in the end the experience was deeply rewarding for her family and the community. Minter said she would speak to the fears people have and explain to them why refugee resettlement is important for Vermont’s future.

Galbraith, who has served as a diplomat in the Balkans and Afghanistan, has more direct experience with the issue than any other candidate. As U.S. ambassador to Croatia he was deeply involved in refugee resettlement of Bosnians — some of those Bosnians who were processed through the embassy in Zagreb during Galbraith’s tenure eventually made their way to Vermont. In the last 20 months Galbraith has made four trips to Syria, mostly its Kurdish regions, working with a British charity on crafting a political settlement. He points out that the vetting process is extremely rigorous and that it’s probably the last way a terrorist would try to enter the United States.

He applauds Mayor Louras for his efforts and said he has offered his assistance and expertise in reaching out to the community.

“The best way to address anxiety is to tell people the facts, to tell them the truth,” Galbraith said. “And on this matter as governor I would speak with considerable authority.”

Dunne, who served with Louras in the state Legislature, did not comment directly on his handling of the issue but said the mayor cares deeply about the city of Rutland. Dunne likened the divisiveness of refugee resettlement to gay marriage in the 1990s and said Vermont, because it is such an overwhelmingly white state, has to go “above and beyond” in welcoming refugees.

“I strongly believe Vermont needs to be the most welcoming state in the nation,” Dunne said. “Change is hard. But we need to make sure we are using a process that helps to bring everyone along.”

All of the candidates agreed that Vermont faces a demographic crisis and that the state’s economy would benefit from more, not less, immigration. Dunne drew attention to the fact that since he graduated from college in the early 1990s the number of Vermonters under the age of 40 has declined by roughly 50,000. “We need to make sure that we are taking the steps so that Vermont is seen as a welcoming place for families in general and a more diverse community in particular,” he said.

Minter pointed out that there are many businesses that cannot find qualified workers and that cultural and ethnic diversity can be drivers of economic growth.

Lisman, who supports immigration generally, said that students from other countries should have the opportunity to stay in Vermont after they graduate, especially if they’re working on a start-up business. Such a program would not, however, extend to Syrians. “On the matter of Syrian refugees I’ve said be cautious,” he reiterated. “And I am.”

Galbraith, who speculated that the State Department would probably say yes to placing refugees in Rutland, said he hopes people can move beyond the question of process and focus on improving the lives of refugees and the greater Rutland community.

“There’s next to nothing to be feared,” he said. “They are people who should be welcomed.”

Whoever occupies the governor’s office next year will set the tone on refugee resettlement statewide — an issue that is not going away anytime soon. Mayor Louras has made it the cornerstone of his political legacy. Whether the State Department selects Rutland — a decision is expected in the next couple of months — the remaining gubernatorial candidates will undoubtedly be asked to address the implications before a statewide electorate.

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